Bitter division ... Beitar Jerusalem fans watch their team play Bnei Sakhnin on Sunday. Photo: AP
JERUSALEM: As the deafening roar of the crowd grew louder and hundreds of police, security guards and undercover officers kept a careful watch on volatile fans, a young Muslim soccer player ran onto the field, at once hated and embraced by supporters from the nationalist Beitar Jerusalem club, amid growing concerns about a rising tide of racism across Israel.
Beitar's hardcore fans are furious over the club's decision to recruit two Chechen Muslim players, and they made their feelings known when 19-year-old Gabriel Kadiev entered the game on Sunday night, screaming their disapproval every time he touched the ball. Other fans cheered him but they were drowned out by the ferocity of the nationalist chants.
The very use of this phrase ['Pure Beitar'] expresses hatred, contempt, disgust, intolerance and zealotry of the darkest kind.Former prime minister Ehud Olmert
Until it signed the two players last month, Beitar was the only club in Israel's national league that had never fielded a Muslim or an Arab player, even though Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of Israel's population, play in other teams and have long been included in Israel's national side.
The Chechen players Gabriel Kadiev, left, and Zaur Sadayev, are introduced at a press conference last month by the Beitar coach, Eli Cohen. Photo: AP
And when ultra-nationalist members held up a sign declaring "Beitar forever pure" to protest against the decision to hire the players, the club's long history of hostility towards Arabs and Muslims drew Israel into the international furore over racism in sport.
"My son is in the youth team of Beitar and I feel ashamed," said one middle-aged man, who did not want to be named, as the crowd chanted for the resignation of the team's coach and owner on Sunday night.
His friend, 60-year-old restaurant owner Shabtai Barash, shares his concern.
Accused ... Beitar fans who proclaimed the team's "purity" have been denounced by senior policital figures, but critics say racist chanting has gone unpunished for years. Photo: AFP
"I am here in support of the players – I do not care if they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish players – I just want my team to do well.
"We are worried, we are afraid and we believe the police and the Prime Minister need to show leadership and say something to these fans, who all support Netanyahu," Mr Barash said.
The extremist fans attending Sunday's much-anticipated match between Beitar and the Israeli-Arab team Bnei Sakhnin at Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium did not represent the club, he said.
"They are just a minority and we are here to raise our voice against them."
But just a few rows along in the sea of Beitar fans dressed in the team's yellow and black colours, it was a different story.
"We hate the Arabs and we want them out," said 24-year-old waitress Reut, who did not want to give her last name. "We are against the Muslims, we do not want them in our team ever. This is my country, it is not their place." Her friends were equally vehement, vowing to "make their lives [of the Muslim players] hell until they leave".
The surge in racist statements during Beitar's last two games was followed by the repeated harassment of the team's new recruits, Zaur Sadaev and Kadiev, who have been abused and spat on. They now travel with police and security protection.
Prosecutors filed indictments against four of the team's fans – three for racist chants and one for harassing the two Chechen players during their first training session with the team last week.
Last Friday, Beitar's club premises were torched in a fire police suspect was lit by some of the team's own fans. A police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said investigators were looking into connections between the fire and "recent decisions by the [club's] management".
What has been allowed to simmer in the stands during matches – the chants of "Death to Arabs" and other slurs – have occasionally spilled into broader society, with extremist Beitar fans running riot in a nearby shopping mall last year, assaulting and harassing Palestinian staff and shoppers.
The former prime minister and lifelong Beitar fan Ehud Olmert wrote an impassioned plea for the racism to end in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, vowing not to attend another game because of the fans' behaviour.
"It does not matter if the fans who waved the banners actually realised what the broader significance of the phrase 'Pure Beitar' is and its connection to the terrible expressions used by haters of Israel and anti-Semites. The very use of this phrase expresses hatred, contempt, disgust, intolerance and zealotry of the darkest kind."
Now the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has stepped in, condemning the racist behaviour and violence.
"We want unity, dialogue and cohesiveness. The last thing we want, and which we absolutely reject is violence, racism and boycotts," Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday.
"Lately, we have seen displays of extremism that we find unacceptable," he said.
But the Arab-Israeli politician Ahmed Tibi, a member of the Knesset, leader of the Ta'al Party and a sponsor of the Bnei Sakhnin club, said political and sporting leaders in Israel were responsible for allowing racism to fester.
"We are talking about the most racist club in the world, a club that deals with players according to their national or ethnic background," Mr Tibi said of Beitar Jerusalem.
"We are not talking about 10 fans, we are talking about thousands of fans . . . and during the last year they shouted racist slogans inside and outside the stadium and no one really tried to stop them, not the police, not the club, not the attorney-general and not the Israeli Football Association."
Israel was acting against racism now only because it was embarrassed by the international focus on the treatment of the two Chechen players, Mr Tibi said.
"Racism has become mainstream in society and Israel is not debating it or confronting it," he warned, describing the last Knesset as the most racist he had experienced.
He attends most Bnei Sakhnin games and often experienced "hateful and brutal" racist abuse, he said.
Such was the concern about the tensions surrounding Sunday's game that Mr Tibi had to be accompanied by Knesset and police security.
"This is a test for the club, for the football association and for Israeli society," he said.
The football journalist Shaul Adar, who has tracked the fortunes of the Beitar team, agrees, and says the issue is now bigger than just the club, which would pay a heavy economic price for its racist image, perhaps even threatening the existence of the club.
"I am aware that they approached a big international company who told them, 'There is no way we will do business with you.'
"As the racism tendencies grow, many people feel they cannot support them any more," Adar said.
Much of the blame for the racist behaviour is laid at the feet of a hard-core group of Beitar fans known as La Famiglia, who regularly abuse black players and chant anti-Islamic and anti-Arab slogans.
"There is some kind of relationship between La Famiglia and ultra-nationalist groups, it is like a magnet for all those elements in Israeli society," Adar said.
The club, founded in 1936, has deep ties to the Likud Party of Mr Netanyahu. Its followers are mostly Mizrahi Jews, who came to Israel from countries in the Middle East and North Africa and who have traditionally been economically disadvantaged and under-represented compared with their Ashkenazi fellow-citizens. They make up about 40 per cent of Israel's population, according to the country's census.
Adar uses the experience of the former Beitar captain Aviram Bruchian to describe the sway the tiny but powerful La Famiglia group has over the club. When Bruchian said in 2009 he would be happy to have an Arab teammate, he was immediately called to a meeting with the group.
The next day, Adar said, the captain released the following message: "I'm sorry for the pain that I caused to the fans and I do understand that I've hurt them. I'm not the one who takes such decisions but if the fans don't want an Arab player, there will be no Arab player in Beitar."
At a small anti-racism protest outside Teddy Stadium before Sunday night's game, a spokesman for the left-leaning New Israel Fund, Itzik Shanan, described the issue of racism as "much broader than just football".
"It is a cancer that has penetrated all parts of Israeli society," Mr Shanan said. "The young fans here are the soldiers and leaders of tomorrow, and it is wrong to give legitimacy to their racist comments."
Outside the stadium after the game, which ended in a 2-2 draw, debates broke out among Beitar fans. The Chechens should never have been recruited, some said. They were hired to prove a point, not because of their talent, others lamented.
The behaviour of those who booed the Muslim player was "disgusting and vulgar" said 27-year-old Josh, who warned that the decision to hire the Chechens was doomed to fail. "It cannot last. Name me a single football team that has survived when their fans are against them."